When we think about nature in Capitol Hill, I bet you only certain organisms come to mind. On the larger end of the taxonomic organization, main branches house groups we call kingdoms. Plantae and Animalia are obvious staples for they’re the easiest to comprehend and are encountered when stepping out our front door. No matter how urban it may seem, even deepest Broadway has much plant and animal life. However, there’s an entire common kingdom that doesn’t require a microscope or advanced knowledge to appreciate; fungi.
The main part of the Fungal Kingdom we notice are mushrooms, but what exactly is a mushroom? In the not too distant past, taxonomists still considered mushrooms odd plants, but they are actually the reproductive arm of a variety of fungi. Mushrooms protrude from the ground, leaf litter, dung, or appear on logs, trees, and unfortunately sometimes our homes, with the hope of spreading of their spores about. Spores are dense clusters of cells that eventually spawn more fungi. Most of a fungus we never notice because these non-reproductive mycelium (as they’re called) stretch like roots in mostly dark, unseen places.
There’s a number of reasons people object to mushrooms. Many perceive them as omens or arbiters of decay. While they may accelerate the process, fungi are simply doing what they’ve always done, break down dead organic matter into consumable energy. More often than not they are either benign or do us a service (like breaking down organic matter that would otherwise build over time).
When you leave aside the species that populate our bodies and homes in unfortunate manners, athletes foot and dry rot being examples, fungi are a helpful part of our culture. Yeasts are fungi, so mostly we’re happy for them because they create tasty bread and alcoholic beverage. Many types of cheese are produced with the help of mold. Even the fungi that produce mushrooms aren’t just useful as food or medicine.
The mycelium of a fungus may even live in symbiosis with the plants we hold dear. There are estimates that 90 percent of all plants on earth have mycorrhizal roots, where mycelium live in and around the roots of a plant in mutalistic nutrient exchange between the two parties. There’s much evidence that mycorrhizal associations are also a buffer for many plants (including our crops) against pathogens.
Back down on Capitol Hill, most people rush by mushrooms, but once you look you’ll stumble upon a host of species. With abundance high from ideal conditions (fall and spring are mushroom season due to a temperature and moisture window), now is a good time to look around. Recently I spotted Puffballs, Agaricus, and jellies on a casual walk between Volunteer Park and Pike street.
When you find a specimen, sit and look at this little marvel of color, texture, and shape. Generally we find similarities of structure, a stalk which holds up a cap, underneath which are gills that spit out spores. From this generality things stray into diverse appearances, from grotesque elfin saddles to dainty parasols (I also think mycologists had a lot more fun naming mushrooms than ornithologists did).
Complexities of identification bring us here: Do not just eat just any mushrooms you find. While we do have edible urban mushrooms, poisoning yourself is a real possibility. Even experienced mushroomers make mistakes and this could not just an upset stomach; a bad mistake could mean failure of vital organs.
Warnings aside, as urban mushroomers we’ll find many species that have lent themselves to city life. Cosmopolitan species may arrive accidentally with garden plants or simply persist here, but the benefit is that we are left with species that are very well known and easy to recognize. Even getting down to the basics of Shaggy Mane versus Puffball can be satisfying.
The good news is that there are excellent local resources for learning more about mushrooms. The Puget Sound Mycological Society runs a variety of classes and events (as well as maintain a poison hotline), designed to aid the gastronome and naturalist. There are also a number of excellent online resources, including UrbanMushrooms. For those wanting books, both Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest and David Arora’s various books are excellent resources. Be careful though, because just like birding or cat fancying, mushrooming can get out of hand.
Previously in Pikes/Pines